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Same-sex marriage (SSM) & civil unions in Rhode Island

2011-MAY: Amendments to House civil union bill.
Discrimination by faith groups to be protected.
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This topic is continued from the previous essay.

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Amendments proposed to Civil Union Bill HB 6103:

A total of four amendments were filed. Three failed:

  • Rep. Arthur J. Corvese (D-North Providence) sponsored one amendment. It would have stated that marriage:

    "... is between one man and one woman ... is not a creature of statute ... [It is a] social institution with roots ... older than the Bill of Rights. ... There has been unspoken agreement … that marriage is between one man and one woman. If that were not the case, gay marriage would be before us, and not civil unions."

    His final statement appears to be in error. If the votes for passage of a same-sex marriage (SSM) bill, it would have been initiated. The only reason why a civil unions bill was introduced is because there were insufficient votes for passage.

    His amendment was never voted upon because the speaker agreed with Rep. Karen MacBeth (D-Cumberland) that the amendment was not germane to the bill. Corvese protested, but the House voted 48 to 23 to uphold the speaker's ruling.

  • Another amendment was sponsored by Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston). His amendment would have rewritten the bill so that it would legalize same-sex marriage and provide extra protections for clergy and religious institutions that wanted to continue to discriminate against LGBTs and SSM. Rep. Peter Petrarca, the sponsor of the main bill, objected, pointing out that House rules state that a floor amendment cannot change the scope of the entire bill. The speaker agreed. The amendment was not voted upon.

  • A third amendment was sponsored by Rep. Doreen M.Costa, (R-North Kingstown). It would have authorized a non-binding referendum of Rhode Island voters on civil unions. House members voted on this amendment and rejected it 59 to 14. Presumably many representatives felt that a fundamental human right such as marriage should not be decided by the opinions, animus, and prejudices of voters.

Rep. Arthur J. Corvese, (D-North Providence) sponsored the only successful floor amendment. It added a "carve-out" clause to the bill which is often referred to as the Corvese Amendment. It states:

15-3.1-5. Conscience and religious organizations protected.

(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no religious or denominational organization, no organization operated for charitable or educational purpose which is supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization, and no individual employed by any of the foregoing organizations, while acting in the scope of that employment, shall be required:

(1) To provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for a purpose related to the solemnization, certification, or celebration of any civil union; or

(2) To solemnize or certify any civil union; or

(3) To treat as valid any civil union;

if such providing, solemnizing, certifying, or treating as valid would cause such organizations or individuals to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

(b) No organization or individual as described in subsection (a) above who fails or refuses to provide, solemnize, certify, or treat as valid, as described in subdivision (a)(1), (a)(2) or (a)(3) above, persons in a civil union, shall be subject to a fine, penalty, or other cause of action for such failure or refusal.

Corvese justified the amendment by saying that:

"religious rights of conscience are important and have to be protected." 1

Thus, any religious entity and their employees -- including hospitals, schools, day care facilities and even cemeteries -- would be able to freely ignore the status of a "civil unionized" couple, to deny the significance of their relationship, and treat them as simple roommates. What has been described as protecting religious liberty is really the protection of the religious liberty to discriminate and denigrate others.

This raises an interesting question: If a person is motivated by their secular beliefs to discriminate against, denigrate, or express animus against women, persons of another religion, persons of a different race, lesbians and gays, transgender persons and transexuals, or persons of a given nationality, they are often criticized for being sexist, religist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, or xenophobic. If they are motivated by their religious beliefs to discriminate against, denigrate, or express animus against these same groups, should they be considered equally biased and be shunned?

of Humanists of Rhode Island objected to the Corvese Amendment. He wrote:

"As you can see, if the idea of a civil union violates your sincerely held religious beliefs, you don't have to treat civil unions as valid. This is clearly favoring religion, a violation of the Establishment Clause [in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Humanists of Rhode Island oppose this bill, and are calling for the State of Rhode Island General Assembly to quickly rectify this grievous error in its next legislative session. Meanwhile, we will support any and all legal challenges to this terrible, anti-American, and anti-human legislation." 2

Ahlquist seems to have misinterpreted the amendment. The amendment applies only to religious organizations, organizations affiliated with religious organizations, and their employees. It does not apply to the general public, to companies like wedding photographers, wedding cake bakers, bridal dress stores, etc. However, it does allow religious organizations and their affiliates to deny equal health insurance, pension, maternal/paternal leave, and other benefits to any of their employees who are in a civil union.

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2011-MAY-19: Bill HB 6103 is passed by the House; comments:

The bill, as amended with the carve-out clause, was subsequently passed by the House by a vote of 62 to 11. 3

Comments on the bill:

  • David Olsen, treasurer for the City of Warwick, had married Leonard Flood in the fall of 2010 in an out-of state wedding. Olson viewed the passage of the bill as a victory. He said: "Marriage equality is our number-one priority, but we’ll take the civil unions bill. What I would be disappointed in is if nothing passed." 4

  • Randal Edgar, reporter for the Providence Journal, wrote:

    "The civil-unions bill — opposed by hundreds who came out to testify last week and thousands, according to one lawmaker’s count, who signed petitions — did indeed pass in the House, with a vote that cut across party lines, even as it left lawmakers at odds over where the issue goes from here and what people in Rhode Island really want.

    Supporters called the vote a historic victory, one that provides important rights to same-sex couples despite falling short of full marriage equality. " 4

  • Rep. Peter Petrarca (D, Lincoln etc.) who cosponsored the bill said:

    "I am very proud of my colleagues in the General Assembly for recognizing that this is the right piece of legislation at the right time. We have made great progress in our goal of providing increased rights, benefits and protections for gay and lesbian couples. This bill is a step forward to ensuring equality and improving their quality of life." 5

  • Rep. Frank Ferri, (D-Warwick), who is openly gay and is a long-time champion of SSM, said:

    "I believe that it is a step forward. There are many couples that need these rights and, today, they know now when they go to the hospital, when they go to a nursing home, their property is protected, they have rights that they didn’t have — as soon as the Senate passes it and the governor signs it. ... We’re creating a second-class citizenship, but this doesn’t end the fight." 4

Most people seem to accept that the civil union bill would be only the first step towards the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage. However, major opposition mounted within the LGBT community against the bill because it would at least temporarily codify second-class citizenship for same-sex couples -- at least until SSM is finally approved in the state, if it ever is.

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Discussion of this topic continues ...

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Randal Edgar, "Gay advocates seek veto of civil-union bill," Providence Journal, 2011-JUN-29, at: http://www.projo.com/
  2. Steve Ahlwuist, "The Civil Union Bill, The Corvese Amendment, and Why Humanists of Rhode Island Opposes this Bill," Humanists of Rhode Island, 2011-JUL-03, at: http://www.humanistsri.com/
  3. "R.I. House passes civil unions bill," The Advocate, 2011-MAY-20. at: http://www.advocate.com/
  4. Randal Edgar, "R.I. House approves civil unions," Providence Journal, 2011-MAY-20, at: http://www.projo.com/
  5. Zach Howard, et al., "Rhode Island Senate approves same-sex civil unions," Reuters, 2011-JUN-29, at: http://www.reuters.com/

Copyright © 2011 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2011-JUN-30
Latest update: 2013-JAN-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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